Ordinary InitiationsBy: "I've come to think that experiences of initiation are very common, very ordinary, very subtle. They happen to us all as a natural part of living."
There are times in the course of a critical illness when a door in someone's experience suddenly opens and the familiar falls away. Their normal view is replaced by a perspective they have never seen before, but one they recognize beyond doubt as their own. These are moments of profound and enduring change. For me as witness, they seem to be moments when the personality recognizes what the soul has always known.
At such times our true life is offered to us, a life more transparent to our deeper values. In the wake of such an experience, I have seen people let go of many previously treasured, hard-earned things and begin to follow a new inner compass. Often they take risks that were unthinkable before their illness. They seem, despite loss and suffering, to have found a greater trust in life and a deeper sense of who they are and what really matters. Seen from this perspective, illness is part of a larger human tradition of initiation, an opportunity in life which is present for us all.
Initiation is commonly viewed in a limited way, as a change in lifestyle, usually marked by ceremony: joining a sorority, graduating, getting married. But such ceremonies rarely include the experience of true initiation. The moment of true initiation is an inward movement, a movement toward our essence, our true nature. Because in that moment we are made able to inhabit that nature more fully, our outer life may become more transparent to it, more coherent with it, more true to it. In initiation, the inner and the outer life become more of a piece, and the result is a sort of healing.
I used to think of initiation as this sort of radical transformation I have seen happen for many of my patients, a sort of epiphany reserved for a spiritual elite. But I no longer think of it this way. Not only my patients but I, too, have experienced a profound shift in my way of seeing the world. I had been someone who saw the world as broken and was always fixing it. I became someone who saw the world as holy and felt privileged to serve it.
This didn't happen as a single dramatic event. It happened slowly over time through a series of events, so subtly that I could see what had happened only by looking backwards. And so I've come to think that experiences of initiation are very common, very ordinary, very subtle. They happen to us all as a natural part of living.
Looking back, I can tell you the very moment my initiation began. At the time I knew my path in life with absolute certainty. I had been preparing for it for years, and had made many sacrifices in order to walk it. I was a young academic doctor managing the pediatric clinics at Stanford Medical Center, and my life goal was to be the first woman to head a department of pediatrics on the West Coast.
But one morning, the man who ran the medical clinics at Stanford came to my office to tell me that a place called the Esalen Institute was looking for twelve doctors to be part of a research program. For the next two years, these doctors would attend a free retreat weekend each month at a beautiful site at the ocean. They would meet people who had some different ideas about human nature and would be asked to consider whether or not these ideas might expand the understanding of how people became sick and how they got well. Perhaps some of these ideas might change the way in which medicine itself was practiced. "I'm going to do it," he told me. "Do you want to come?"
The year was 1972, almost a decade before the emergence of the field of holistic health. In that moment my direction in life, my whole future, was being offered to me, and I must say that I did have a moment of recognition. At a deep instinctive level I knew that this was mine. But what went through my conscious mind was a single thought: "What a great way to meet men." So I applied.
Life is a movement toward the soul, but we ourselves are attached to other things. So the soul has to take us and move us along by whatever handle happens to be sticking out. I had just ended a five-year relationship and so I was very available to go and meet men. I believe that if I had seen the opportunity for what it really was, known what I was going to have to surrender in order to have it, I wouldn't have gone.
This was the first step of my initiation. After several more such small happenings over the following years, I took the first step on a new path. I resigned from the medical school faculty to work to restore the soul to the practice of medicine. I have been doing this work for the last twenty-five years.
We might view life as a movement toward the soul, a return to what is most genuine and unique in each of us. In the trajectory of a lifetime this turning toward personal integrity happens not once but many times. Some of these turnings, these initiations, are small; some are large. All are important.
Much in life distracts us from our true nature, captures the self in bonds of greed, desire, numbness, unconsciousness and drama. These bonds seem strong and unavoidable. But every initiation, no matter to whom and how it occurs, is evidence that the soul is stronger than all that and can draw us toward itself, despite all. Every initiation is a message of grace and bears witness to the possibility of freedom.
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. Medical School and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is author of the bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.
So the Darkness Shall be the Light
So the Darkness Shall be the Light
"Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought... So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing." -T.S. Eliot
Rain in the night is a form of sleep-I don't have to close my eyes. Alongside me in a car is a Buddhist monk from Thailand and a young Canadian who has been working in a diamond mine. We are being driven by the airline company to Ottawa because our plane couldn't land in Montreal. The monk tells me that every morning at four a.m. he sings the Diamond Sutra to help cut away the projections of ego. Now he wants to know everything about mining for diamonds. He listens to what the young miner has to say. What I want to know from the monk is how to push through the impasse of modern heartlessness. The young miner tells us only that the price of diamonds is going up and the food in the mining camp is bad. The plane to Arctic Canada, a 727 configured for cargo and twenty passengers in the rear, is small and swift enough to nose-dive down out of a hole in the clouds to land on a dirt strip. The passengers are recognizable-Inuit and Canadian hunters, petroleum geologists, a few hikers, Inuit families, and the same steward who was weathered into Iqaluit, Canada with me the winter before. "Back again?" he asks. We don't really know each other, but our paths keep crossing. The whole expanse from Alaska to Greenland is one small polar town.
A deep exhalation of relief slides through me as we fly north. The passengers fall silent. Below, roads and towns disappear, and trees become smaller and smaller, more widely scattered, until they disappear. The rocky barrenlands that extend north through Quebec, Labrador, and surround Hudson Bay sprawl below, a gray carapace slit open by narrow lakes that shine like eyes. The fluted surface of the rock is the result of ice age ice scraping out narrow valleys and molding elongated ridges. From the air it looks like a corrugated roof. This is perhaps the most remote part of the polar north. On the Great Fish River once lived the least known Eskimos. They held a curse against white people. The nearest white settlement to their village took half a year to reach by dogsled.
On my lap is a map of the entire polar north. My finger follows the squiggling green dashes that mark the treeline where it undulates across the top of the world. From Point Hope in Alaska, it runs above the Brooks range, then trends southeast through the Central Arctic, follows the Coopermine River in the Northwest Territories, dips below Hudson Bay, rises in Quebec, but never touches Baffin Island or Greenland. The line looks like a snail's track, then a skirt being swirled, the hemline dropped hard by a storm.
In the lower forty-eight, we associate treeline with altitude, since trees die out in the mountains around 10,000 feet. But altitude by itself has nothing to do with tree growth. Instead, it is a lack of summer heat that sets the northern limit. Trees need enough heat to stir up photochemical reactions in plant cells, produce leaves and a root structure, and last of all, wood, from which a tree acquires its height. The sun shines in the Arctic, but you can count on your fingers the hours it feels hot.
In Iqaluit we change to a thirty-year-old prop plane and cross the icy chessboard of Baffin Bay. Making this crossing six months earlier I'd been filled with dread. The polar dark was visible ahead of us on the horizon and as we flew into it, I feared I would lose my bearings as I had once when my heart rate dipped to 20, then 10, and I was almost dead.
Now, flying into what the Inuit call the Land of Day, I read the initiation song for a Hudson Bay (Lyons Inlet) child going on his first journey:
I rise up from rest, moving swiftly as the raven's wing.
I rise up to meet the day. Wa-wa.
My face is turned from the dark of night,
My gaze toward dawn, toward the whitening dawn...
The Land of Day is thought to be the heaven where people who have been murdered or drowned go. In death all people are happy and never hungry-the place is full of caribou-and play ball with the skull of a walrus. "It is this game of the souls playing at ball that we can see in sky as the northern lights," the legend goes.
Pawing through my rucksack I come on the battered, mimeographed pages meant to serve as an English-Greenlandic dictionary and look up the word for the month of July. No name is listed. Only June, Timmissat erniviat, meaning "they lay eggs," and August, Innanit aarsarniartalerfiat, "the newborn birds fly south." The process of hatching has been completely left out.
In Ilulissat, Greenland, I board the northbound ferry bound for Ubenkendt Eyland-Unknown Island-by way of Uummannaq, where I stayed the winter before. The ship is so big there is no sense of being moved by water; we move it: as we leave the harbor, the double-walled bow nudges chunks of pancake ice aside. They call this boat a ferry, but it carries no cars-there are no roads between towns and villages in Greenland. Rather, it serves as a link between communities, one of two ships that carries supplies and people up and down Greenland's west coast from June through September, or until ice closes the fjords.
To get out of the wind I retreat to the stern and lie down on a metal bench in the cold sun. The bench is white, the deck is red, and the bollards are bright green. The boat's engines churn softly. I close my eyes for the moment but the brightness penetrates my eyelids. Light peels my skin; the hole in the ozone stares at me. There is nothing more to lose or gain. Empty-handed, I climb out of my own hole to some other kind of observation post: exposure implies vision. Isn't that the point of travel? To stumble, drop one's white cane in a blizzard, and learn to see.
The ship follows the Viagut Strait northwest toward Baffin Bay. We plow through the remnants of a deconstructed iceberg. The broken ice looks like cartoons of animals, ships, buildings, bits of history, all reduced to litter as if to signify an academic disinterest in the past. Or else the floes are facades, glacial nuclei with no margins, or, all margin with no center.
The Karjak glacier at the head of Uummannaq Fjord drains directly from the inland ice. From this glacier and two others in Disko Bay are cleaved most of the icebergs that enter the Labrador current. Having passed from Uummannaq Fjord into Baffin Bay, I look back and see the crenulated edge of the ice cap. Behind Uummannaq, the ice is 5,587 feet thick whereas, at its center, the cap is 11,184 feet thick, depressing the land beneath it over a thousand feet below sea level. The farther away we go, the more ice I can see: its convex upward profile is a conical hat cut from a diamond.
Ice sheets are self-regulating. Glaciers affect climate; the low temperatures help stabilize ice caps and encourage glacial growth. The island of Greenland is a bowl carved by ice to hold ice; it is a mountain barrier that separates people, birds and animals. Only the Arctic fox has been seen high on the ice, though it's not known if they migrate all the way over. An East Greenland saying is, "If the soles of your feet itch, it means that a fox is walking in your footprints."
Light moves toward earth at 186,282 miles per second. The view from the ship's bridge through its nine panavision windows is a perfect place to get knocked in the head by the Arctic light's persistence. Kurt, the captain, turns to bend over maps. "Are we lost?" I ask, joking. "Ya, we may be lost," he says, without looking up. "But I've never hit an iceberg yet."
We come alongside the southerly end of a huge island rising brown and dry from the water. I tell Kurt where I am trying to go. He looks up: "There it is-your island. That's Ubenkendt Eyland. It was named by a Dutch whaler in the 1830's. It means Unknown Island," he tells me. "Too bad we don't go there."
In Uummannaq I seek a fishing boat that can take me to the island. I go to the post office and call my friend, Aleqa, in Nuuk. Because she is from Uummannaq district, she knows everyone here. Perhaps she can call someone and ask if a fishing boat is going to Illorsuit and if they will give me a ride. She does this, and there is a boat arriving sometime in the evening. The fisherman's name is Kristian Moller, but that's all she knows-not the color or size of the boat, nor the call numbers; and he doesn't speak English.
I walk to the government office and ask a woman to write out a note in Greenlandic which will explain to Kristian who I am and where I am going, and if he would be so kind as to give me a ride on his boat to his village. Afterward, I sit on a bench in front of the Grill Baren-a Greenlandic hotdog stand-with a view of the whole harbor and wait. Every time a boat rounds the bend of the harbor's breakwater, I run to it and ask the captain in crossed up Greenlandic-Danish if he is Kristian Moller. No. No. No...comes the reply. I can't even say his name properly. I finger the note in my pocket, then it occurs to me that Kristian-if he does appear-might not be able to read.
Another hour goes by. I jump at the arrival of every fishing boat while a drunk looks on, amused. The sun is hot. Young Greenlandic women parade by with permed hair, movie star style shades, tiny skirts, and heavy makeup, like gangsters' molls-but there are no gangsters here.
At five in the evening a blue fishing boat rounds the breakwater at the far side of the harbor, a hundred yards away. I stand, but cannot read the name on the wheelhouse. In Danish I ask the drunk, Naym? and point. He looks. Why have I even asked? He is so drunk that I doubt he can see anything. "Kristian Moller," he says confidently. I thank him and smile.
The note is not necessary. When I come alongside the boat, Kristian looks up at me with kind eyes. I say the name of his village, the name of the family with whom I am to stay, point in the direction of Illorsuit and he extends his hand to take my small rucksack, then looks at his watch and indicates seven p.m., departure time.
When I return an hour later the boat has been moved to the dock on the other side of the harbor, in front of the Grill Baren where Kristian visits with his friends. The air begins to cool. A man with the dark face of a Tibetan warrior sits down on the wooden plank across from me. He is wearing red coveralls over an immaculate white Faroe Island sweater closed up with silver buttons under his chin. He has thick black hair, a heavy brow, and high cheekbones. His eyes pierce me: they are turquoise.
He talks to no one, just waits. For our boat? For someone else? Or is he just passing time? Seven o'clock comes and goes and still we linger. Who cares about time? The sun is langorous. I cannot keep my eyes off this wild man sitting across from me.
A woman and two children stow their luggage below. Is she Kristian's wife? Are these his children? He treats everyone with the same quiet aloofness. At nine p.m. he climbs aboard, followed by the wild man. They offer their hands and help us step down onto the deck. A wind has come up and I know that as soon as we leave the harbor, it will be cold.
To be on water at the seabirds' and seals' level gives me a different perspective. Water-blackened cliffs rising out of the fjords are monolithic. Thousands of resting fulmars fly up from the water ahead of us-a curtain of birds-then drop back down as we steam ahead. Kristian's blue boat is constructed of heavy timbers, its bow battered by ice. At 40 feet it has a high seaworthy prow and a tiny box-shaped wheelhouse. On the lines between the mast and the deck hang pieces of dried seal. They sway with the boat's rocking.
I stand out on deck in the midnight sun. The wind has died. I finger my old copy of Shakespeare's The Tempest, his island play. Maybe it will instruct me somehow during my stay. A single cloud appears and blue washes over everything. Kristian yells, "Nikolai!" The man with the turquoise eyes appears on deck and takes the helm while Kristian climbs down into the skiff tied aft, and, carrying a rifle, takes off so fast I barely have time to see him vanish behind an iceberg.
The cold intensifies. Nikolai steps out from the wheelhouse and cuts off a hunk of seal. Strings of dried meat pull from the ribs and his big hands shine with seal grease as he eats. Still on deck, I can see my breath. My clothes are inadequate and I'm shaking. But what choice do I have? I stand outside for three hours, but finally give in and stick my head inside the wheelhouse. Nikolai's blue eyes turn on me. Is he Caliban, something between animal and man, a sweet-eyed monster leading me to a forgotten island? The name Caliban is an anagram patched from the word cannibal, a name for a man who is treacherous, lecherous, and without language.
Nikolai motions for me to come in and sit on the narrow bench beside him-there is no other place. Wedged in, I'm so squeezed it's difficult to keep my knees from hitting the wheel as it turns. He opens the small window and sticks his head out into the breeze. The pale light floods in, its sheen lying against the sharp bones in his face.
I wake with a start. My head has tipped sideways and is resting against Nikolai's hip. I must have fallen asleep from the sudden warmth of the wheelhouse. Now I'm embarrassed. He looks down at me wordlessly, his huge eyes laughing gently as if to say, it's alright. The boat putts northward.
Kristian reappears from behind an iceberg in the fjord. A dead seal is laid over the bow of his skiff. Nikolai helps haul the seal aboard, then Kristian takes the helm. Nikolai disappears down a forward hold-where the woman and children have gone-to sleep.
Glass is what the boat cuts through as we continue to look for seals. The sea is indigo as if this day was night, which it is, but night lit up. A line of silver demarcates blue water from blue cliff, and there, a thin band of haze rises. I wonder why anyone comes to Ubenkendt Eyland-Unkown Island. What attracted Rockwell Kent or Hans Holm to this one spot when there are thousands off Greenland and hundreds of settlements? What has attracted me?
Something breaks the surface of the water: a pod of seals. Kristian grabs his rifle and leaps to the foredeck while I hold the wheel. I see the whites of his eyes as he flies by. Nikolai appears on deck from below-not Ahab, but Caliban. He watches: Kristian shoots, misses, shoots again, and misses. Unfazed by failure, the two men join me in the wheelhouse, and doubly squeezed between them, we continue on.
For two more hours we cut through glass. We are silent. The slow put-putting of the two-cylinder diesel engine does all the talking. Yet an unvoiced conversation seems to be going on. Being pressed tightly together stands for the opposite: a sense of capaciousness and accommodation takes over this boat's tiny room.
On the map, Ubenkendt Eyland looks like a flounder seen from above with a flattened head and a long tail. Once there was a village called Ingia at the northern tip of the island. Now it's gone. I want to ask, but don't have the Greenlandic words for it: why this island is "Unknown" when all the others in the vicinity have names-Upernivik, Karrat, Qeqertaarssuaq?
As we make our way up the Illorsuit Strait, I wonder where in the village Rockwell Kent's house will be; where he went to paint; what he traveled to see; what the Arctic taught him about light. I'm reminded of the dark wilds of ignorance I have experienced-not the dark's ignorance, but my own. Does light repair what darkness disassembles, or does it work the other way around?
Nikolai retreats to the hold, and half an hour later, returns with the woman and two children who I have not seen at all during the journey. They stand on deck rumpled and silent-they've been sleeping. I look at Kristian's watch: two a.m. We round a high knob topped by a graveyard and glide into the bay. The village of Illorsuit lies before us: a half-moon arc strung with a few brightly painted houses on a black sand beach-an Arctic version of a south sea island, but instead of tropical waters, the inlet is littered with ice. The population is saidto be approximately one hundred: ninety-nine Greenlanders and one Dane, Hans Holm, with whom I am to stay.
Now I see that the July sun's hoop-dance has lengthened into an elliptical arc. Its persistence is nothing if not daunting. What lies before me is this: rock cliffs that are black and icebergs passing in front of them-like photographic negatives-miniature mountains glistening white. Only the fjord vacillates. Sometimes it is ink, sometimes pale blue, sometimes colorless glass. On water's surface the mountains shimmer, go still, shimmer again, the reflections torn by the boat's passage.
We weave through icebergs. They are contorted and soft. The July sun has begun to do its work on them. I see how summer unfastens itself even as it comes into existence. Glazed by heat, the icebergs rain down turquoise tears.
I climb the metal ladder on the side of the dock and Kristian hands my rucksack to me, motioning to the northwesternmost end of the village-indicating that I will find Hans' house there. But which house? And how will I find it? The village is asleep. I hitch the blue rucksack on my back and begin walking. Clothes flap on lines in the all-night sun and sled dogs tethered by long chains sleep in dirt, their noses tucked under their tails. Fish and seal meat dry on racks poled far enough off the ground so loose dogs can't get it. Children's toys and baby carriages lie in the sand and sleds are stacked three high, the boiling pots for seal and coffee water from last winter's hunts still hanging from the handlebars.
All Arctic settlements have the same acrid smell: of dogshit, seal guts, unwashed bodies. But the sun in the northern sky casts a light so lucid, all impurities are erased and water slaps the black sand with equanimity. The village proper gives onto a half-mile long wooden boardwalk that leads to a few houses at the end. I can't know exactly which house is Hans' nor do I have the language to ask, but somehow, it will become clear.
I step from the boardwalk onto the beach and keep walking. A lone Greenlandic woman approaches. Stupefied, I say only, Hans Holm? and she nods. I follow her. Mistakenly I had searched the bay for the biggest and most brightly painted house, but Hans is no colonial master. His is one of the smallest and most humble abodes.
The path to the house is strewn with uneaten bits of seal. Six puppies greet me, jumping up and searching my pockets for food. The house is painted mustard yellow and has about it the air of hippiedom: handmade skylight; unfinished additions; old, single-paned casement windows with white lace curtains. Hans and his two young children, Hendrick, 2, and Maria Louisa, 6, come to the door. When I apologize for arriving so late, he laughs and says, "It doesn't matter," and I know he means it. In an Arctic summer, the last thing anyone worries about is sleep.
The children shake my hand excitedly. They speak only Greenlandic. The woman who met me is introduced as Arnnannguaq, the mother of the children. The children tug at my sleeve as we step inside. They are small, raven-haired, dexterous. The interior is sparsely furnished. One big room has only a rug and a television. The kitchen is small and in one corner, cordoned off by a curtain, is the bed where Hans, Arnnannguaq, Maria Louisa, and Hendrick sleep all together, Greenlandic style. Am I to sleep there too? I wonder. There is no other bed.
"Would you like some toast?" Hans asks. "I remember the men at the American airbase at Sondre Stromfjord when I worked there in the fifties all liked to eat toast." I gladly accept. Maria Louisa climbs onto the table, lifts the skylight and peppers the glass with muesli. "For the birds," Hans tells me. "She likes to watch the snow buntings eat the cereal."
It is the middle of the night-bright, sunny and cheerful, everyone wide awake. I look at the clock on the kitchen wall. It reads 12:14. Day or night? Regardless, it can't be right. By now it must be 3:00 a.m. Hans chuckles. "That clock has been broken for ten years," he says.
A fishing boat arrives and anchors out front. An Inuit couple jumps into a skiff, comes ashore, and knocks on the door. Without waiting for a reply, they burst in. They are friends of Arnnannguaq's from Satut, a settlement at the head of Uummannaq Fjord. Their toothless grins indicate they've caught a seal and want to share it with us. It is the Inuit custom, Hans tells me.
Hans searches my face: "You look tired. You must lie down. It won't bother anyone." I have travelled five days to get here. Now all I can think of is sleep. He lays a dirty foam pad and comforter on the floor and I use my rucksack and jacket for a pillow.
From my mat on the floor I watch how cool sun floods the windows. For a moment, the light reminds me of death instead of life, of that glimpse of an illumined ceiling-the light at the end of the tunnel-which some say represents a primordial memory of creation. Nothing that august occurs to me now. I am only weary. Time is not a separate measurement. My body is time and it has been hurtled through space a long way.
Sun in the north lingers over the bright glaciers of Upernavik Island six miles across the water and lights the bleak palisade of dirt and rock that rises up behind the village. It is a revetment that girdles this village in deep Arctic seclusion, not hermetically, the way trees close in a place, but by its brazen exposure, sunlit and bold, as if the world had been turned skin-side out.
The sun makes its circle from the north, to the east, to the south, to the west on a smooth oval track. As icebergs groan and crack, I dream my waist has been broken and I am leaning: my shoulder tips, then my elbow. I spread out my hand to catch myself, but nothing helps. I shatter because I am made of ice and have seen that ice cannot break its own fall.
Laughter wakes me. Dazed, I look out the window. The seal has been dragged up on the beach on a piece of plywood. The two women, wearing rubber boots, cigarettes hanging from their lips, are sharpening knives. The woman from Satut who is built like a man wears her hair cut short. She holds her blade up to the sun until its honed edge glistens. Then she and Arnnannguaq bend over and begin skinning the dead animal.
One long cut from chin to back flippers and the hide breaks open glutted with white curds of fat. The woman from Satut cuts deeper and pulls something from the gapping cavity. It is the liver, still warm, steaming in the frigid, sunny, morning air. She holds the meat out straight between her teeth and her hand, and with the knife cuts off a piece, eats it, then cuts another piece for Arnnannguaq. They laugh because raw liver is such a delicacy, full of protein and vitamin C, and they were growing drunk from the taste and goodness of it.
I stumble out of the house toward them. They turn, knives glinting, their cheeks and chins covered with blood. Smiling, they offer me a piece of liver. I step forward tentatively, make a gesture meaning, just a small piece, chew and swallow as they watch delightedly. The rest of the seal is cut up and brought into the house, then dropped into two huge pots to boil.
The sun moving around the sky is a surrealist's clock: making unreal what seems real, and delivering it to a truer reality. The sun's clock does not give us a future, but burns each instant as it occurs. No clocks demark the passage of time. All time has passed; all time is occurring now. Squeezed slightly in the middle as if to give its round form a waist, the sun is a hole through which we slide with no stops; it is a percipience penetrating all alcoves, diverticulae, sand dunes, concavities, and all places of hiding.
I have ridden a fishing boat into a world of light, light with no darkness, no moon-lunacy, no giving over to ordinary night after the exhaustions of day. Here, the emanations of light give off more light and sun is a rolling torch on ball bearings, always igniting what it has oxidized.
Gretel Ehrlich is a novelist, poet and essayist. Her book about Greenland, Any Clear Thing That Blinds Us with Surprise, will be published this year by Pantheon.
Why We Travel: A Love Affair with the World
Why We Travel: A Love Affair with the World
Like falling in love, travel throws us into a state of delight, uncertainty and self-discovery. Like lovers, travelers both give and receive. Travelers, like lovers, go naked into the world.
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again-to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.
The beauty of this whole process was perhaps best described, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, "The Philosophy of Travel." We "need sometimes," the Harvard philosopher wrote, "to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what."
I like that stress on work, since never more than on the road are we shown how proportional our blessings are to the difficulty that precedes them; and I like that stress on a holiday that's "moral," since we fall into our ethical habits as easily as into our beds at night. Few of us ever forget the connection between "travel" and "travail," and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship-both my own, which I want to feel, and others', which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us towards a better balance of wisdom and compassion-of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. In that regard, even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (in Beijing) or a scratchy revival showing of Wild Orchids (on the Champs-Elysees) can be both novelty and revelation: in China, after all, people will pay a whole week's wages to eat with Colonel Sanders, and in Paris, Mickey Rourke is regarded as the greatest actor since Jerry Lewis. If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic to us in Evanston, Illinois, it only follows that a McDonald's would seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator-or, at least, equally far from everything expected. Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home and those who don't: among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo-or Cuzco, or Kathmandu." It's all very much the same.
But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head: if a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal. When you go to North Korea, for example, you really do feel as if you've landed on a different planet-and the North Koreans doubtless feel that they're being visited by an extra-terrestrial, too (or else they simply assume that you, as they do, receive orders every morning from the Central Committee on what clothes to wear and what route to use when walking to work, and you, as they do, have loudspeakers in your bedroom broadcasting propaganda every morning at dawn, and you, as they do, have your radios fixed so as to receive only a single channel).
We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. And we travel to fill in the gaps left by tomorrow's headlines: when you drive down the streets of Port-au-Prince, for example, where there is almost no paving and women relieve themselves next to mountains of trash, your notions of the Internet and a "one world order" grow usefully revised. Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.
And, in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon-an anti-Federal Express, if you like-in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California; I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers. But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import-and export-dreams with tenderness.
By now all of us have heard (too often) the old Proust line about how the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new places but in seeing with new eyes. Yet one of the subtler beauties of travel is that it enables you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter. Thus even as holidays help you appreciate your own home more-not least by seeing it through a distant admirer's eyes-they help you bring newly appreciative-distant-eyes to the places you visit. You can teach them what they have to celebrate as much as you celebrate what they have to teach.
This, I think, is how tourism, which so obviously destroys cultures, can also resuscitate or revive them, how it has created new "traditional" dances in Bali, and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their works. If the first thing we can bring the Cubans is a real and balanced sense of what contemporary America is like, the second-and perhaps more important-thing we can bring them is a fresh and renewed sense of how special are the warmth and beauty of their country, for those who can compare it with other places around the globe.
Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: it shows us the sights and values and issues that we ordinarily might ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in traveling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we'd otherwise seldom have cause to visit: on the most basic level, when I'm in Thailand, though a teetotaler who usually goes to bed at 9:00 p.m. each night, I stay up till dawn in the local bars; and in Tibet, though not a real Buddhist, I spend days on end in temples, listening to the chants of sutras. I go to Iceland to visit the lunar spaces within me, and, in the uncanny quietude and emptiness of that vast and treeless world, to tap parts of myself generally obscured by chatter and routine.
We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity-and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the "gentleman in the parlor," and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of unessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).
Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious-to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves-and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted, "A man never goes so far as when he does not know where he is going."
There are, of course, great dangers to this, as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self. Traveling is a way to reverse time, to a small extent, and make a day last a year-or at least 45 hours-and traveling is an easy way of surrounding ourselves, as in childhood, with what we cannot understand. Language facilitates this cracking open, for when we go to France, we often migrate to French, and the more child-like self, simple and polite, that speaking a foreign language educes. Even when I'm speaking pidgin English in Hanoi, I'm simplified in a positive way, and concerned not with expressing myself, but simply making sense.
So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home (which, though treacherous again, can at least help me to extend my vision), and I tend to be more easily excited abroad, and even kinder. And since no one I meet can "place" me-no one can fix me in my resumé-I can remake myself for better, as well as, of course, for worse (if travel is notoriously a cradle for false identities, it can also, at its best, be a crucible for truer ones). In this way, travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: on the road, we often live more simply (even when staying in a luxury hotel), with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.
This is what Camus meant when he said that "what gives value to travel is fear"-disruption, in other words (or emancipation), from circumstance and all the habits behind which we hide. And that is why many of us travel not in search of answers, but of better questions. I, like many people, tend to ask questions of the places I visit, and relish most the ones that ask the most searching questions back of me: in Paraguay, for example, where one car in every two is stolen, and two thirds of the goods on sale are smuggled, I have to rethink my every Californian assumption. And in Thailand, where many young women give up their bodies in order to protect their families-to become better Buddhists-I have to question my own too-ready judgments. "The ideal travel book," Christopher Isherwood once said, "should be perhaps a little like a crime story in which you're in search of something." And it's the best kind of something, I would add, if it's one that you can never quite find.
I remember, in fact, after my first trips to Southeast Asia more than a decade ago, how I would come back to my apartment in New York City and lie in my bed, kept up by something more than jet-lag, playing back in my memory, over and over, all that I had experienced, and paging wistfully through my photographs and reading and re-reading my diaries, as if to extract some mystery from them. Anyone witnessing this strange scene would have drawn the right conclusion: I was in love.
For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can't quite speak the language, and you don't know where you're going, and you're pulled ever deeper into an inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you're left puzzling over who you are and whom you've fallen in with. All the great travel books are love stories, by some reckoning-from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy and the New Testament-and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.
And what this metaphor also brings home to us is that all travel is a two-way transaction, as we too easily forget, and if warfare is one model of the meeting of nations, romance is another. For what we all too often ignore when we go abroad is that we are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize, and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume, as much on the road as when we are at home. At the very least, we are objects of speculation (and even desire) who can seem as exotic to the people around us as they do to us.
We are the comic props in Japanese home-movies, the oddities in Maliese anecdotes and the fall-guys in Chinese jokes; we are the moving postcards or bizarre objets trouvés that villagers in Peru will later tell their friends about. If travel is about the meeting of realities, it is no less about the mating of illusions: you give me my dreamed-of vision of Tibet, and I'll give you your wished-for California. And in truth, many of us, even (or especially) the ones who are fleeing America abroad, will get taken, willy-nilly, as symbols of the American Dream. That, in fact, is perhaps the most central and most wrenching of the questions travel proposes to us: how to respond to the dreams that people tender to you? Do you encourage their notions of a Land of Milk and Honey across the horizon, even if it is the same land you've abandoned? Or do you try to dampen their enthusiasm for a place that exists only in the mind? To quicken their dreams may, after all, be to matchmake them with an illusion; yet to dash them may be to strip them of the one possession that sustains them in adversity.
That whole complex interaction-not unlike the dilemmas we face with those we love (how do we balance truthfulness and tact?)-is partly the reason why so many of the great travel writers, by nature, are enthusiasts: not just Pierre Loti, who famously, infamously, fell in love wherever he alighted (an archetypal sailor leaving offspring in the form of Madame Butterfly myths), but also Henry Miller, or D.H. Lawrence, or Graham Greene, all of whom bore out the hidden truth that we are optimists abroad as readily as pessimists at home. None of them was by any means blind to the deficiencies of the places around them, but all, having chosen to go there, chose to find something to admire.
All, in that sense, believed in "being moved" as one of the points of taking trips, and "being transported" by private as well as public means; all saw that "ecstasy" ("ex-stasis") tells us that our highest moments come when we're not stationary, and that epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it. I remember once asking the great travel writer Norman Lewis if he'd ever be interested in writing on apartheid South Africa. He looked at me astonished. "To write well about a thing," he said, "I've got to like it!"
At the same time, as all this is intrinsic to travel, from Ovid to O'Rourke, travel itself is changing as the world does, and with it, the mandate of the travel writer. It's not enough to go to the ends of the earth these days (not least because the ends of the earth are often coming to you); and where a writer like Jan Morris could, a few years ago, achieve something miraculous simply by voyaging to all the great cities of the globe, now anyone with a Visa card can do that. So where Morris, in effect, was chronicling the last days of Empire, a younger travel writer is in a better position to chart the first days of a new Empire, post-national, global, mobile and yet as diligent as the Raj in transporting its props and its values around the world.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the British famously sent the Bible and Shakespeare and cricket round the world; now a more international kind of Empire is sending Madonna and the Simpsons and Brad Pitt. And the way in which each culture takes in this common pool of references tells you as much about them as their indigenous products might. Madonna in an Islamic country, after all, sounds radically different from Madonna in a Confucian one, and neither begins to mean the same as Madonna on East 14th Street. When you go to a McDonald's outlet in Kyoto, you will find Teriyaki McBurgers and Bacon Potato Pies. The placemats offer maps of the great temples of the city, and the posters all around broadcast the wonders of San Francisco. And-most crucial of all-the young people eating their Big Macs, with baseball caps worn backwards, and tight 501 jeans, are still utterly and inalienably Japanese in the way they move, they nod, they sip their Oolong Teas-and never to be mistaken for the patrons of a McDonald's outlet in Rio, or Morocco, or Managua. These days a whole new realm of exotica arises out of the way one culture colors and appropriates the products of another.
The other factor complicating and exciting all of this is people, who are, more and more, themselves as many-tongued and mongrel as cities like Sydney or Toronto or Hong Kong. I am, in many ways, an increasingly typical specimen, if only because I was born, as the son of Indian parents, in England, moved to America at seven and cannot really call myself an Indian, an American or an Englishman. I was, in short, a traveler at birth, for whom even a visit to the candy store was a trip through a foreign world where no one I saw quite matched my parents' inheritance, or my own. And though some of this is involuntary and tragic-the number of refugees in the world, which came to just 2.5 million in 1970, is now at least 27.4 million-it does involve, for some of us, the chance to be trans-national in a happier sense, able to adapt anywhere, used to being outsiders everywhere and forced to fashion our own rigorous sense of home. (And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere).
Besides, even those who don't move around the world find the world moving more and more around them. Walk just six blocks, in Queens or Berkeley, and you're traveling through several cultures in as many minutes; get into a cab outside the White House, and you're often in a piece of Addis Ababa. And technology, too, compounds this (sometimes deceptive) sense of availability, so that many people feel they can travel around the world without leaving the room-through cyberspace or CD-ROMs, videos and virtual travel. There are many challenges in this, of course, in what it says about essential notions of family and community and loyalty, and in the worry that air-conditioned, purely synthetic versions of places may replace the real thing-not to mention the fact that the world seems increasingly in flux, a moving target quicker than our notions of it. But there is, for the traveler at least, the sense that learning about home and learning about a foreign world can be one and the same thing.
All of us feel this from the cradle, and know, in some sense, that all the significant movement we ever take is internal. We travel when we see a movie, strike up a new friendship, get held up. Novels are often journeys as much as travel books are fictions; and though this has been true since at least as long ago as Sir John Mandeville's colorful fourteenth-century accounts of a Far East he'd never visited, it's an even more shadowy distinction now, as genre distinctions join other borders in collapsing. In Mary Morris' House Arrest, a thinly disguised account of Castro's Cuba, the novelist reiterates on the copyright page, "All dialogue is invented. Isabella, her family, the inhabitants and even la isla itself are creations of the author's imagination." On page 172, however, we read, "La isla, of course, does exist. Don't let anyone fool you about that. It just feels as if it doesn't. But it does." No wonder the travel writer narrator-a fictional construct (or not)?-confesses to devoting her travel magazine column to places that never existed. "Erewhon," after all, the undiscovered land in Samuel Butler's great travel novel, is just "nowhere" rearranged.
Travel, then, is a voyage into that famously subjective zone, the imagination, and what the traveler brings back is-and has to be-an ineffable compound of himself and the place, what's really there and what's only in him. Thus Bruce Chatwin's books seem to dance around the distinction between fact and fancy. V.S. Naipaul's last book, A Way in the World, was published as a non-fictional "series" in England, and a "novel" over here. And when some of the stories in Paul Theroux's half-invented memoir, My Other Life, were published in The New Yorker, they were slyly categorized as "Fact and Fiction."
And since travel is, in a sense, about the conspiracy of perception and imagination, the two great travel writers, for me, to whom I constantly return, are Emerson and Thoreau (the one who famously advised that "Traveling is a fool's paradise," and the other who "traveled a good deal in Concord"). Both of them insist on the fact that reality is our creation, and that we invent the places we see as much as we do the books that we read. What we find outside ourselves has to be inside ourselves for us to find it. Or, as Sir Thomas Browne sagely put it, "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is Africa and her prodigies in us." So, if more and more of us have to carry our sense of home inside us, we also-Emerson and Thoreau remind us-have to carry with us our sense of destination. The most valuable Pacifics we explore will always be the vast expanses within us, and the most important Northwest Crossings the thresholds we cross in the heart. The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Center.
And even as the world seems to grow more exhausted, our travels do not, and some of the finest travel books in recent years have been those that undertake a parallel journey, matching the physical steps of a pilgrimage with the metaphysical steps of a questioning (as in Peter Matthiessen's great Snow Leopard), or chronicling a trip to the farthest reaches of human strangeness (as in Oliver Sacks's Island of the Colour-Blind, which features a journey not just to a remote atoll in the Pacific, but to a realm where people actually see light differently). The most distant shores, we are constantly reminded, lie within the person asleep at our side.
So travel, at heart, is just a quick way of keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau, wrote, "There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor." Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love-affairs, never really end.
The White Darkness
The White Darkness
"Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession".
-Wade Davis on the rites of rural Haiti
Haiti is saturated with cliche-the poverty, the tortured landscape, the spate of abominable political leaders, consistent it seems only in their personal greed and disregard for their people. But find a quiet place somewhere-perhaps beneath the spreading branches of a sacred mapou tree, or on a hotel verandah at dawn, when, from sheer exhaustion or moved by the splendor of the city basking in such soft light, you can forget all that you have heard about this turbulent country. Breathe deeply and listen to the rhythm of the land, and you will hear voices speaking of another Haiti, one whose beauty and magic make it unique in all the Americas.
The challenge of travel is to find a way to isolate and understand the germ of a people, to measure and absorb the spirit of place. In Haiti one begins in Port-au-Prince. The capital lies prostrate across a low, hot tropical plain at the head of a bay flanked on both sides by soaring mountains. Behind these mountains rise others, creating an illusion of space that absorbs Haiti's multitudes and softens the country's harshest statistic: a land mass of only 10,000 square miles inhabited by over seven million people, making it one of the most densely populated nations on Earth.
Port-au-Prince is a sprawling muddle of a city, on first encounter a carnival of civic chaos. A waterfront shantytown damp with laundry. Half finished public monuments. Streets lined with flamboyant trees and redolent with the stench of fish and sweat, excrement and ash. Dazzling government buildings and a presidential palace so white that it doesn't seem real. There are the cries of the marketplace, the din of untuned engines, the reek of diesel fumes. It presents all the squalor and all the graces of any Caribbean capital.
Yet as you drive through the city for the first time, down by the docks perhaps, where the shanties face the gleaming cruise ships and men with legs like anvils haul carts loaded with bloody hides, notice something else. The people on the street don't walk; they flow, exuding pride. Physically, they are beautiful. They seem gay, jaunty, carefree. Washed clean by the afternoon rain, the entire city has a rakish charm. But there is more. In a land of material scarcity, the people adorn their lives with their imagination: discarded Coke cans become suitcases or trumpets, rubber tires are turned into shoes, buses transformed into kaleidoscopic tap-taps, moving exhibits of vibrant, naive art. And it isn't just how things appear; it is something in the air, something electric-a raw, elemental energy not to be found elsewhere in the Americas. What you have found is the lens of Africa focused upon the New World.
Today, evidence of its African heritage is everywhere in rural Haiti. In the fields, long lines of men wield hoes to the rhythm of small drums; just beyond them sit steaming pots of millet and yams ready for the harvest feast. Near the center of a roadside settlement, or lakou, a wizened old man holds court. Markets sprout up at every crossroads, and like magnets they pull the women out of the hills; one sees their narrow traffic on the trails, the billowy walk of girls beneath baskets of rice, the silhouette of a stubborn matron dragging a half-dozen donkeys laden with eggplant. There are sounds as well: the echo of distant songs, the din of the market, and the cadence of the creole language, each word truncated to fit the meter of West African speech. Every one of these disparate images translates into a theme: the value of collective labor, communal land holdings, the authority of the patriarch, the dominant role of women in the market economy. And these themes, in turn, are clues to a complex social world.
Yet images alone cannot begin to express the cohesion of the peasant society; this, like a psychic education, must come in symbols, in invisible tones sensed and felt as much as observed. In this country of survivors and spirits, the living and the dead, the Vodoun religion provides the essential bond. Vodoun is a Fon word from Dahomey that simply means "spirit" or "God." It is not a black magic cult; it is a system of profound religious beliefs concerning the relationships among man, nature and the supernatural forces of the universe. Like all religions, it fuses the unknown to the known, creates order out of chaos, renders the mysterious intelligible.
Vodoun not only embodies a set of spiritual concepts, it prescribes a way of life, a philosophy and code of ethics that regulate social behavior. As in a Christian or an Islamic society, within a Vodoun society, one finds completeness-a distinct language; a complex system of traditional medicine, art, and music inspired by African antecedents; education based on the oral transmission of songs and folklore; a system of justice derived from indigenous principles of conduct and morality. The religion cannot be abstracted from the day-to-day lives of the believers. In Haiti, as in Africa, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane, between the material and the spiritual. Every dance, every song, every action is but a particle of the whole, each gesture a prayer for the survival of the entire community.
Vodoun is not an animistic religion. The believers do not endow natural objects with souls; they serve the loa, which are the multiple expressions of God. There is Agwe, the spiritual sovereign of the sea; and there is Ogoun, the spirit of fire, war and the metallurgical elements. But there are also Erzulie, the goddess of love; Guede, the spirit of the dead; Legba, the spirit of communication between all spheres. The Vodounists, in fact, honor hundreds of loa because they recognize all life, all material objects, and even abstract processes, as sacred expressions of God. Though God is the supreme force at the apex of the pantheon, he is distant, and it is with the loa that Haitians interact on a daily basis.
The spirits live beneath the great water, sharing their time between Haiti and the mythic homeland of Guinée. But they often choose to reside in places of great natural beauty. They rise from the bottom of the sea, inhabit the rich plains, and amble down the rocky trails from the summits of mountains. They dwell in the center of stones, the dampness of caves, the depth of sunken wells. Believers are drawn to these places as we are drawn to cathedrals. We do not worship the buildings; we go there to be in the presence of God.
In summer in Haiti the spirits walk, the people follow, and for weeks the roads come alive with pilgrims. The most revered site is a waterfall named Saut d'Eau, where years ago Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love, escaped the wrath of the Catholic priests by turning into a pigeon and disappearing into the iridescent mist. Saut d'Eau is doubly important to Vodounists for it is also the home of Damballah-Wedo, the serpent god, the repository of all spiritual wisdom and the source of all the falling waters. Legend has it that when the first rains fell, a rainbow, Ayida Wedo, was reflected. Damballah fell in love with Ayida, and their love entwined them in a cosmic helix from which all creation was fertilized.
The waterfall carves a deep, hidden basin from a limestone escarpment, and for three days in July the trail descending to the falls quivers with the mirage of pilgrims coming and going. There is no order to their arrival, but it is a constant stream-as many as 15,000 appear-and the basin nestled into the edge of the mountain swells like a festive carnival tent to absorb everyone. It is a joyous occasion; one sees it on the faces of the children, the young city dandies leaping over the rocks like cats, the ragged peasants laughing derisively at a fat, preposterous government official. But for the devout it is also a moment of purification and healing, one chance each year to partake of the power of the water, to bathe and drink, and to bottle a small sample of the cold thin blood of the divine.
In the cool, limpid light of dawn the pilgrims gather around the periphery of the basin, where the herbalists set up their dusty stations, displaying sooty boxes, hunks of root, loose bags of healing leaves and tubs of water and herbs. Houngan and mambo-Vodoun priests and priestesses-speak of magic done with dew, and tie brightly colored strings to barren young women or around the bellies of plump matrons who, in time, dangle the strings from wax stuck to the surface of the mapou tree, consecrated for the blessings of the gods.
One need only touch the water to feel its grace, and for some it is enough to dip into the shallow silvery pools, leaving their offerings of corn and rice in small piles. But most go directly to the cascades, women and men, old and young, baring their breasts and scrambling up the wet slippery bedrock that rises in a series of steps toward the base of the falls. At the lip of the escarpment the river forks twice, sending not one but three waterfalls plunging more than 100 feet. What is not lost in mist strikes the rocks with tremendous force, dividing again into many smaller chutes, each one becoming a sanctuary. The people remove their clothes, cast them into the water, and stand, arms outstretched, beseeching the spirits. Young men move directly beneath the head of the falls, which batters their numb bodies against the rocks. Their prayers are lost to the thunderous roar, the piercing shouts, and the screams of flocks of children. Everything is in flux, with no edge and no separation-the sounds and sights, the passions, the lush soaring vegetation, primeval and rare. Merely to submit to the waters is to open oneself to Damballah, and at any one time at the base of the waterfall in the shadow of the rainbow, there are two or more pilgrims possessed by the spirit, slithering across the wet rocks.
The ease with which the Haitians walk in and out of their spirit world is a consequence of the remarkable dialogue that exists between human beings and the spirits. The loa are powerful and if offended can do great harm; but they are also predictable, and if properly served will reward men and women with good fortune. But just as humans must honor the spirits, so the loa are dependent on people. They arrive in response to the invocation of the songs, riding the rhythm of the drums. Once possessed, the believer loses all consciousness and sense of self; he or she becomes the spirit, taking on its persona and powers.
One night on the coast just beyond the Carrefour road, I was invited to the temple of a prominent Vodoun priest. I watched quietly as a white-robed girl-one of the hounsis, or initiates of the temple-came out of the darkness into the shelter of the peristyle. She spun in two directions, placed a candle on the dirt floor, and lit it. The mambo, bearing a clay jar, repeated her motion, then carefully traced a cabalistic design on the earth, using cornmeal taken from the jar. This was a vévé, the symbol of the loa being invoked. After a series of libations, the mambo with a flourish led a group of initiates into the peristyle and around the centerpost, the poteau mitan, in a counterclockwise direction until they knelt as one before the Vodoun priest. Bearing a sacred rattle and speaking in a ritualistic language, the houngan recited an elaborate litany that evoked all the mysteries of an ancient tradition.
Then the drums started, first the penetrating staccato cry of the cata, the smallest, whipped by a pair of long, thin sticks. The rolling rhythm of the seconde followed, and then came the sound of thunder rising, as if the belly of the Earth were about to burst. This was the maman, largest of the three. Each drum had its own rhythm, its own pitch, yet there was a stunning unity to their sound that swept over the senses. The mambo's voice sliced through the night, and against the haunting chords of her invocation the drummers beat a continuous battery, a resonance so powerful and directed it had the very palm trees above swaying in sympathy.
The initiates responded, swinging about the peristyle as one body linked in a single pulse. Each hounsis remained anonymous, focused inward toward the poteau mitan and the drums. Their dance was not a ritual of poised grace, of allegory; it was a frontal assault on the forces of nature. Physically, it was a dance of shoulders and arms, of feet flat on the ground repeating deceptively simple steps over and over. But it was also a dance of purpose and resolution, of solidarity and permanence.
For forty minutes the dance went on, and then it happened. The maman broke-fled from the fixed rhythm of the other two drums, then rushed back with a highly syncopated, broken counterpoint. The effect was one of excruciating emptiness, a moment of hopeless vulnerability. An initiate froze. The drum pounded relentlessly, deep, solid blows that seemed to strike directly to the woman's spine. She cringed with each beat. Then, with one foot fixed to the earth like a root, she began to spin in a spasmodic pirouette, out of which she soon broke to hurtle about the peristyle, stumbling, falling, grasping, thrashing the air with her arms, momentarily regaining her center only to be driven on by the incessant beat. And upon this wave of sound, the spirit arrived. The woman's violence ceased; slowly she lifted her face to the sky. She had been mounted by the Divine Horseman; she had become the spirit. The loa, the spirit that the ceremony had been invoking, had arrived.
Never have I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of Vodoun possession that followed. The initiate, a diminutive woman, tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about like children. She grabbed a glass and crunched it in her mouth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. At one point the mambo brought her a live dove; this the hounsis sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing the neck apart with her teeth. Soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary thirty minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium, with the mambo racing about, spraying libations of water and rum, directing the spirits with the sound of her rattle.
The rhythm changed and the spirits arrived again, this time riding a fire burning at the base of the poteau mitan. A hounsis was mounted violently-her entire body shaking, her muscles flexed-and a single spasm wriggled up her spine. She knelt before the fire, calling out in some ancient tongue. Then she stood up and began to whirl, describing smaller and smaller circles that carried her like a top around the poteau mitan and dropped her, still spinning, onto the fire. She remained there for an impossibly long time, and then in a single bound that sent embers and ash throughout the peristyle, she leapt away. Landing squarely on both feet, she stared back at the fire and screeched like a raven. Then she embraced the coals. She grabbed a burning stick with each hand, slapped them together, and released one. The other she began to lick, with broad lascivious strokes of her tongue, and then she ate the fire, taking a red hot coal the size of a small apple between her lips. Then once more she began to spin. She went around the poteau mitan three times until finally she collapsed into the arms of the mambo. The burning ember was still in her mouth.
For the nonbeliever there is something profoundly disturbing about spirit possession. Its power is raw, immediate, and undeniably real, devastating, in a way, to those of us who do not know our gods. To witness sane and in every regard respectable individuals experiencing direct rapport with the divine fills us with either fear-which finds its natural outlet in disbelief-or envy.
Most psychologists who have attempted to understand possession from a scientific perspective have fallen into the former category, and perhaps because of this they have come up with some bewildering conclusions, derived from quite unwarranted assumptions. For one, because the mystical frame of reference of the Vodounists involves issues that cannot be approached by their calculus-the existence or nonexistence of spirits, for example-the beliefs of the individual experiencing possession are dismissed as externalities. To the believer, the dissociation of personality that characterizes possession is the hand of divine grace; to the psychologist it is but a symptom of an "overwhelming psychic disturbance." One prominent Haitian physician, acknowledging that possession occurs under strict parameters of ritual, nevertheless concluded that it was the result of "widespread pathology in the countryside which, far from being the result of individual or social experience, was related to the genetic character of the Haitian people," a racial psychosis, as he put it elsewhere, of a people "living on nerves." Such inadequate explanations are typical of uninformed observers of the Vodoun faith.
Until the turn of this century most references to Vodoun merely acknowledged its role as a catalyst in the only successful slave revolt in history. The notion of Vodoun as something evil and macabre emerged largely after 1915, when the U.S. Marine Corps occupied Haiti. For the next twenty years the island was inundated with missionaries and marines, mostly from the American South, who were both captivated and appalled by everything they saw, or thought they saw, in the infamous Black Republic. Americans at home shared the fascination. Books, with titles such as Voodoo Fire in Haiti, Black Baghdad, A Puritan in Voodooland, The White King of La Gonave, Cannibal Cousins, and The Magic Island, in turn inspired a succession of Hollywood B-movies-I Walked with a Zombie, The White Zombies, Zombies on Broadway, and Zombies of the Stratosphere.
In any other era, these books and movies, full of pins and needles in dolls, children bred for the cauldron, and zombies crawling out of the grave to attack people, would have been immediately forgotten. However, appearing when they did, they conveyed an important message to the American public: any country in which such abominations took place could find salvation only through military occupation. This false and absurd depiction of Vodoun accounts for its reputation as a nefarious black magic cult.
Vodoun, in truth, is a complex, metaphysical world view distilled from profound religions that have their roots in Africa. The essence of the faith is a sacred cycle of life, death, and rebirth unique to the religion. For the acolyte, death is feared not for its finality but as a crucial and vulnerable moment in which the spiritual and physical components separate. One aspect of the soul, the ti bon ange, or little good angel, goes beneath the Great Water. A year and a day after the death, in one of the most important of all Vodoun rites, the ti bon ange is ritualistically reclaimed and placed by the houngan in a govi, a small clay jar, which is stored in the temple's inner sanctuary. That soul, initially associated with a particular relative, in time becomes part of a vast pool of ancestral energy from which emerge the archetypes which are the loa, the 401 spirits of the Vodoun pantheon. To Haitians this reclamation of the dead is not an isolated sentimental act; on the contrary, it is as fundamental and inescapable as birth itself. One emerges from the womb an animal, the spiritual birth at initiation makes one human, but it is the final reemergence that marks one's birth as sacred essence.
It is possession, the return of the spirits to the body, that completes the sacred cycle: from human to ancestor, from ancestor to cosmic principle, from principle to personage, and personage returning to displace the identity of man or woman. Hence, while Vodounists serve their gods, they also give birth to them. The ultimate experience in Vodoun ritual is the moment when the loa responds to the invocation of the drums and rises from the earth to inhabit the body. In many ways Vodoun is the most quintessentially democratic faith, for the believers not only have direct access to the spirits, they actually receive the gods into their bodies. That moment of spirit possession-what Maya Deren, dancer and author, described as the white darkness-is by no means a pathological event. On the contrary it is the manifestation of divine grace, the epiphany of the Vodoun faith. As Haitians often say, "White people go to church and speak about God. We dance in the temple and become God."
To be sure, there are other less benign forces in Vodoun, the conjurers of dark magic, the manipulators of the hexing herbs. Yet to ask why there is sorcery in Vodoun is ultimately to ask why there is evil in the universe. The answer, if there is one, is the same as that given by Krishna to a disciple, when he said, "To thicken the plot." Indeed, nearly every religion has a notion of darkness and light. In Christianity there is the fallen archangel who is the devil, and the Christ child, the son of God. For Vodounists, sorcery is merely the manifestation of the dark side of the universe. Balancing those malevolent forces with the magical power of the positive is the very goal of the religion.
The god of war and fire dwells in the north, in the shadow of a mapou tree that marks the place where once each year a mud pond spreads over a dry roadbed near the center of the village of Plaine du Nord. Like the waters of Saut d'Eau, the mud of the basin is said to be profoundly curative, and each year thousands of pilgrims arrive, some to fill their bottles, some to cleanse their babies, many to bathe. Unlike Saut d'Eau, the area is hemmed in by houses that funnel all the energy of the pilgrims into a small, intensely charged space. And in place of the serenity of Damballah, there is the raging energy of Ogoun.
Around the basin a ring of candles burns for the spirit, and the pilgrims, dressed in bright cotton, lean precariously over the mud to leave offerings of rum and meat, rice and wine. There is a battery of drums to one side, and those mounted by the spirit enter the basin, disappear, and emerge transformed. A young man, his body submerged with only his eyes showing, moves steadily like a reptile past the legs of naked women, their skin coated with slimy clay. Beside them, children dive like ducks for tossed coins. At the base of the mapou, Ogoun feeds leaves and rum to a sacrificial bull; others reach out to touch it and caress its flank, and then the machete cuts into its throat and the blood spreads over the surface of the mud.
On my last day in Haiti, I was watching all this when I felt something fluid-not water or sweat or rum-trickle down my arm. I turned to a man pressed close beside me and saw his arm riddled with needles and small blades, the blood running copiously over the scars of past years, staining some leaves bound to his elbow before dripping from his skin to mine.
The man was smiling. He too was possessed, like the youth straddling the dying bull, or the dancers and the women wallowing in the mud. Men and women, descendants of those who had been dragged in chains from an African homeland, embraced by a new landscape which they, in turn, had impregnated with all the forces of light and darkness. "Haiti," a Vodoun priest once told me, "will teach you that good and evil are one. We never confuse them. Nor do we keep them apart."
Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist, is author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and One River. His most recent book is Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, in which this essay is included. Shadows in the Sun is published in the U.S. by Island Press and in Canada as The Clouded Leopard by Douglas & McIntyre.
Signs of Spiritual Progress (July 2012)
Shambhala Sun | July 2012
Signs of Spiritual Progress
concept of success on the spiritual path is pretty suspect. After all,
isn’t it a journey without goal? But there are some ways, says PEMA CHÖDRÖN, we can tell if our practice is working.
"As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion."
It is tempting to ask ourselves if we are making "progress" on the spiritual path. But to look for progress is a set-up—a guarantee that we won't measure up to some arbitrary goal we've established.
Traditional teachings tell us that one sign of progress in meditation practice is that our kleshas diminish. Kleshas are the strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction.
Though the teachings point us in the direction of diminishing our klesha activity, calling ourselves "bad" because we have strong conflicting emotions is not helpful. That just causes negativity and suffering to escalate. What helps is to train again and again in not acting out our kleshas with speech and actions, and also in not repressing them or getting caught in guilt. The traditional instruction is to find the middle way between the extreme views of indulging—going right ahead and telling people off verbally or mentally—and repressing: biting your tongue and calling yourself a bad person.
Now, to find what the middle way means is a challenging path. That is hard to know how to do. We routinely think we have to go to one extreme or the other, either acting out or repressing. We are unaware of that middle ground between the two. But the open space of the middle ground is where wisdom lies, where compassion lies, and where lots of discoveries are to be made. One discovery we make there is that progress isn't what we think it is.
We are talking about a gradual awakening, a gradual learning process. By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions, very slowly we can acknowledge what is happening to us. We begin to see when, for example, we are starting to harden our views and spin a story line about a situation. We begin to be able to acknowledge when we are blaming people, or when we are afraid and pulling back, or when we are completely tense, or when we can't soften, or when we can't refrain from saying something harsh. We begin to acknowledge where we are. This ability comes from meditation practice. The ability to notice where we are and what we do comes from practice.
I should point out that what we're talking about is not judgmental acknowledging, but compassionate acknowledging. This compassionate aspect of acknowledging is also cultivated by meditation. In meditation we sit quietly with ourselves and we acknowledge whatever comes up with an unbiased attitude—we label it "thinking" and go back to the outbreath. We train in not labeling our thoughts "bad" or "good," but in simply seeing them. Anyone who has meditated knows that this journey from judging ourselves or others to seeing what is, without bias, is a gradual one.
So one sign of progress is that we can begin to acknowledge what is happening. We can't do it every time, but at some point we realize we are acknowledging more, and that our acknowledgment is compassionate—not judgmental, parental or authoritarian. We begin to touch in with unconditional friendliness, which we call maitri—an unconditional openness towards whatever might arise. Again and again throughout our day we can acknowledge what's happening with a bit more gentleness and honesty.
We then discover that patterns can change, which is another sign of progress. Having acknowledged what is happening, we may find that we can do something different from what we usually do. On the other hand, we may discover that (as people are always saying to me), "I see what I do, but I can't stop it." We might be able to acknowledge our emotions, but we still can't refrain from yelling at somebody or laying a guilt trip on ourselves. But to acknowledge that we are doing all these things is in itself an enormous step; it is reversing a fundamental, crippling ignorance.
Seeing but not being able to stop can go on for quite a long time, but at some point we find that we can do something different. The main "something different" we can do begins with becoming aware of some kind of holding on or grasping—a hardness or tension. We can sense it in our minds and we can feel it in our bodies. Then, when we feel our bodies tighten, when we see our minds freeze, we can begin to soften and relax. This "something different" is quite do-able. It is not theoretical. Our mind is in a knot and we learn to relax by letting our thoughts go. Our body is in a knot and we learn to relax our body, too.
Basically this is instruction on disowning: letting go and relaxing our grasping and fixation. At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften. It might be that sometimes we can acknowledge but we can't do anything else, and at other times we can both acknowledge and soften. This is an ongoing process: it's not like we're ever home free. However, the aspiration to open becomes a way of life. We discover a commitment to this way of life.
This process has an exposed quality, an embarrassing quality. Through it our awareness of "imperfection" is heightened. We see that we are discursive, that we are jealous, aggressive or lustful. For example, when we wish to be kind, we become more aware of our selfishness. When we want to be generous, our stinginess comes into focus. Acknowledging what is, with honesty and compassion; continually training in letting thoughts go and in softening when we are hardening—these are steps on the path of awakening. That's how kleshas begin to diminish. It is how we develop trust in the basic openness and kindness of our being.
However, as I said, if we use diminishing klesha activity as a measure of progress, we are setting ourselves up for failure. As long as we experience strong emotions—even if we also experience peace—we will feel that we have failed. It is far more helpful to have as our goal becoming curious about what increases klesha activity and what diminishes it, because this goal is fluid. It is a goal-less exploration that includes our so-called failures. As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. We will just continue to buy into our old mindsets of right and wrong, becoming more solid and closed to life.
When we train in letting go of thinking that anything—including ourselves—is either good or bad, we open our minds to practice with forgiveness and humor. And we practice opening to a compassionate space in which good/bad judgments can dissolve. We practice letting go of our idea of a "goal" and letting go of our concept of "progress," because right there, in that process of letting go, is where our hearts open and soften—over and over again.
Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist
nun whose root teacher was the renowned meditation master Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche. Since his death in 1987, she has studied with Sakyong
Mipham and with her current principal teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul
Rinpoche. Her many popular books include The Places that Scare You, When Things Fall Apart, and Start Where You Are.
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